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Autonomous Vehicles

Published on April 20th, 2019 | by Jesper Berggreen


1987 Self-Driving Technology — The Future Was Almost Ready Decades Ago?

April 20th, 2019 by  

Self-Driving Technology Time Machine — A Look At 1987 Status

Isn’t this funny: Here I am, happy about finally placing an order on a Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus, including the full self-driving package, and at the same time as I choose to flicker through a bunch of old Motor magazines from 1987 to find some mentions of my old 1987 Volvo 240 for a fun comparison, I stumble upon the highlight below.

Motor magazine 9/1987

Soon, The Car Will Drive Itself

Just after placing my order on the Model 3, CleanTechnica writer Maximilian Holland made us all aware of the conversation between MIT researcher Lex Fridman and Tesla CEO Elon Musk on self-driving evolution and artificial intelligence, which was nice, because any doubt I might have had on the sanity of my investment was washed away. I think this self driving thing is really about to happen.

Well, yeah, but in 1987, some people thought so too. Below is a shortened translate of the old article. Hilarious and slightly worrying at the same time — I mean, are we still fooling ourselves?

“In a few years, you can sleep or read while your car manages its way through traffic with guidance from roadside electronics. At the same time, an electronic map will make sure you reach your destination. Lean back, relax, and enjoy the scenery passing by.

To transport yourself by car can soon be a matter of pressing the button labeled Drive. State-of-the-art automobile technology promises to take over all driver functions as soon as 1995. An autonomous self-driving project was launched by Daimler-Benz and is based on the principle of the vehicle being controlled by roadside transmitters. Which means the driver can take a nap, read a newspaper, or even play solitaire card games while the car adjusts speed and steering. Even emergency braking is handled thanks to the built-in radar.”

So there you have it. Like reading a new CleanTechnica article, right? It seems like something we could have published last week apart from the notion that it was Daimler, not that new kid on the block, Tesla, getting ahead of everyone else.

My best guess is that the project in question was the Prometheus Project (1987–1995, which cost €749,000,000). The project culminated in 1995 when an autonomous Mercedes-Benz S-Class endured a 1,600 km (1,000 mile) trip from Munich to Copenhagen and back using computer vision to react in real-time traffic. The car achieved speeds exceeding 175 km/h (109 mph) on the German Autobahn. It even managed lane changes to pass other cars. Despite being a research system without emphasis on long-distance reliability, it drove up to 158 kilometres (98 miles) without any human intervention. Impressive, even by today’s standards.

The article on hand also discusses a few rather unexpected features, like self-replacing headlight bulbs:

“The modern car will also do self-service. It will be able to replace a dead headlight bulb automatically and inform the driver to purchase a new one.”

Funny that this never became a thing. But then again, LEDs would have made the system obsolete anyway. But let’s not ignore the power of optimism. Behold this paragraph, especially keeping in mind the latest safety report from Tesla:

“The self-driving system is ready to be deployed as soon as all roadside transmitters are in place, but Daimler-Benz is not eager to let us know when they plan test drives. However, they have no doubt that this system will be much safer than a human driver.”

Indeed. Let’s not for one second forget the lives this technology, once implemented at full scale, will save. As Elon Musk puts it in the conversation with Lex Fridman: “Frankly, it’s pretty crazy letting people drive a two-tonne death machine manually.”

Feel free to use my referral code, or anybody else’s, to get some free Supercharging on a new Tesla: https://ts.la/jesper18367 


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About the Author

Jesper had his perspective on the world expanded vastly after having attended primary school in rural Africa in the early 1980s. And while educated a computer programmer and laboratory technician, working with computers and lab-robots at the institute of forensic medicine in Aarhus, Denmark, he never forgets what life is like having nothing. Thus it became obvious for him that technological advancement is necessary for the prosperity of all humankind, sharing this one vessel we call planet earth. However, technology has to be smart, clean, sustainable, widely accessible, and democratic in order to change the world for the better. Writing about clean energy, electric transportation, energy poverty, and related issues, he gets the message through to anyone who wants to know better. Jesper is founder of Lifelike.dk and a long-term investor in Tesla, Ørsted, and Vestas.

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